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Detroit mayor uses State of City speech to point to city's positive change during bankruptcy

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DETROIT - In the nearly two months that Mike Duggan has been Detroit's mayor, he's met with President Barack Obama, public bus riders, city workers and anyone who will listen to his message that the city is changing — this time for the better.

Duggan said Wednesday night during his first State of the City address that he and other elected officials are addressing blight, unemployment, crime, poor public transportation, snow removal and many of Detroit's other problems.

"You've seen us take on these issues calmly and deal with them honestly," he said. "The change has started and the change in Detroit is real."

The 45-minute address was the first such speech since Detroit's finances fell under control of state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr and the city was allowed to enter bankruptcy.

"The question I get now, almost everyday somebody asks me: 'Aren't you discouraged?'" Duggan told several hundred people in a packed City Hall auditorium. "'You're the mayor of a city that's in bankruptcy. You don't have control of your own destiny. And of course, you're not really the mayor. The emergency manager is in charge.'"

But Duggan said he is working with Orr, even though he is not a fan of the arrangement.

Detroit is going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, and Duggan's address came less than a week after Orr filed his plan to pay creditors while providing money for city services and improvements in the coming years.

The mayor's power is restricted. Most of the power once exclusive to the mayor's office now resides with Orr, who has complete control over all city finances, how much is spent and what the money is spent on. A deal with Orr gives Duggan control over day-to-day functions of city government.

"I had a choice to make," Duggan said. "And that was: Should I take responsibility for the city services that are there, do the best I can and prepare for the most smooth transition as possible Oct. 1 when the emergency manager leaves, or should I take the politically easier way and criticize him for the next nine months? I really felt the people ... were going to be better served if we put aside our differences and sat down and try to work professionally."

Orr has said Detroit should exit bankruptcy this year. His 18-month contract ends in the fall and control could return to elected officials, although a transition board could be put in place when the emergency manager exits.

His blueprint for Detroit's restructuring and debt removal calls for the city to spend $1.5 billion over 10 years to remove blighted properties, upgrade public-safety equipment and technology and make other improvements.

Duggan, a former medical centre chief, was elected in November. Blight removal and demolition of what could be 70,000 or more vacant houses and other buildings are under his control per the deal with Orr. Unlike his predecessors, Duggan will take on the monumental task with millions of dollars in focused support from the federal government and millions more set aside from bills the city won't be paying to creditors during its historic bankruptcy.

About $500 million of the $1.5 billion in Orr's plan would be used to knock down up to 450 decaying, abandoned properties each week. The U.S. government also announced in September that it would direct more than $100 million in grants to help Detroit tear down vacant buildings and spur job growth.

Duggan announced Wednesday that "strategic demolition" of some fire-damaged vacant homes will begin within 30 days, with the work being paid for using $20 million in an unused escrow fund earmarked for burned houses.

"If you drive through most of the neighbourhoods today, you wouldn't know there was a national recovery," he said. "People in this community see parts of the country doing well and even parts of the city doing well and others are left behind."

Other highlights from his speech included:

— The city will start filing lawsuits against property owners who fail to take care of their homes.

— It's buying 15 new ambulances and plans to hire 70 emergency medical service workers.

— It's asked U.S. Transportation officials to move quickly on the city's need for new public buses.

Barbara Cosby, a retired Detroit Medical Center worker, said she was encouraged by what Duggan had to say.

"I see that there's going to probably be a change and that's what I'm looking for," said Cosby.

Duggan was able to touch on all the real issues that Detroit residents "have been living with and dealing with day in and day out," said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit councilwoman and founder of a government relations advocacy firm.

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